I recently had the good fortune to attend a week-long debating tournament. During the opening ceremony, a large number of academics spoke about how debating deals with real issues, explores innovative solutions and expands the horizons of those who participate. I couldn’t help stifling a bit of laughter – this person had clearly not been to a debate in years if they thought it did anything for advancing policy issues or expanding horizons.
Let me explain. In one of the debates I watched, a team made some… interesting arguments with regard to a specific type of trade policy.They said that this policy would always contain an “exemption clause” to prevent companies suing governments for pursuing certain “good” policies, specifically those promoting the public interest for things like health and the environment, even if it damages the bottom line of that company (this is otherwise allowed under the policy). The only issue is that the real world directly disproves this. For instance, Phillip Morris is currently directly challenging Australia’s plain packaging laws under this legislation. That is to say, they are challenging a policy which has positive public health outcomes because it hurts their bottom line. Because, you know, when a policy like plain packaging causes fewer people to smoke and a country to be a bit less awful, it hurts the bottom line of cigarette companies. This is done under the very clause that is supposed to have exemptions specifically for this.
Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m being too harsh on debating. There are fair reasons why debaters are allowed to make stuff up about the world. But it’s worth noting that rhetoric and good theories can’t be entirely trusted. Much like economists and politicians, debaters are very good at making incredibly credible theories under a certain set of assumptions and with a certain set of incentives. This is a very valuable tool. They sell these models with very effective rhetoric (hence why, in the trade debate, the team that fundamentally lied was able to win). The theories in question are often quite good. But it’s worthwhile to check whether the rhetoric and models actually hold with reality. When there are direct and relevant counter-examples to what seems to be an incredibly convincing theory, that’s probably an indicator that it might be worth checking the credibility of the theory.
The reason for this is because in the non-debating world, there are consequences to believing bullshit theories. To start non-controversially, communism works fantastically in theory. There are very few immediate and intuitive reasons why it shouldn’t work. However, the presence of its unambiguous failure in most formerly communist states would give us hesitance in trusting that theory. To be a bit more contemporary, if you believe that renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy, the plastering of the Murdoch press with the death of renewable energy growth probably seems plausible. Except that renewable energy isn’t more expensive. Whoops. We wouldn’t want to let those facts get in the way of a good ol’ propaganda campaign.
The issue is that multiple theories on the same issue can be equally convincing. In theory, both communism and unadulterated free markets should work fantastically. Obviously, if either one worked perfectly, the other couldn’t. As a side note, neither of them work. We know this. And the reason that the theories fail is that they conveniently ignore the real nature of the world, just like how the debate team ignored the fact that the clauses had no universal exemptions for public health.
When people are confronted with an issue that has more than one side, they tend to seek out an authority – they look to a commentator, or a personality, or a politician (heaven forbid the latter). I encourage a different take. Look for facts first, authority second. One of the authorities is probably at least somewhat right, but given that most of them will be good at seeming logical and convincing, be pre-warned and pre-armed so that you can pick the one who is least wrong. When you have the facts at your fingertips, you’ll be able to point out the theories that exist in fairy-tale worlds, and the ones that are grounded in reality.
Authorities have ideologies. They have convincing theories. They have incentives. Facts do not. Facts are your friends, not authorities. Facts are fun. Use them.
1 The specific trade policy in question is a clause called an Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause, which is put in free-trade agreements. To simplify a bit, ISDS is basically the idea that if a government X has a free trade agreement with country Y and that free trade agreement contains an ISDS clause, then a company in country Y can sue government X if that government makes policy that negatively impacts the company’s profits in country X.